It’s well established in the emergency response community that most of the failures that occur during a crisis event pretty much anywhere (including schools) are not due to a lack of manpower or materials or resources, but rather to problems with communication. Educators spend each school day communicating (even though there are days when it feels like no one is listening!) yet experience the same failures. Effective communication in schools is crucial in violence prevention and crisis response.
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Let’s start with critical communications BEFORE an incident occurs.
Schools need to establish a relationship-based culture and daily practices that encourage students to make disclosures about threats or other issues of concern. “See something, say something” doesn’t work if no one is available or listening. Adults in the school should be visible, accessible, and approachable. Two teachers leaning against the lockers in the hallway chatting with each other between classes may be visible, but they are not accessible or approachable. Those same two teachers individually standing in the middle of the hallway greeting, observing, and listening to students as they pass by are inviting conversation, communication, and yes–disclosures.
It’s the same with cafeteria duty, bus duty, or supervising a football game. Adults need to be immersed with and available to the students, rather than adopting an “us versus them” posture that is a significant obstacle to students expressing concerns or issues. Make no mistake–there are students in your school right now who know something you need to know. How will you make sure they’ll tell you?
Use what you have better
Then there is communication that helps us effectively respond to violence, threats, accidents, and all the other hazards that a school faces.
Some schools have classroom phones that can page throughout the building, while others have only one-way communication using a PA system. Regardless of what systems your school has, maximize the capabilities by simply using them correctly. In the main office, dusty radios sit in the chargers or are left lying on vacant desks. The office is periodically left unmanned “just for a second” so no one is around to answer the phone or the PA in that moment of need. Within classrooms, the phone or PA button is hard to get to or is hidden under a blizzard of student work so that it can’t be found in the panic of an emergency. PAs are often not in good working order or can’t be heard in some areas or outside of the building.
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Perhaps most concerning is the over-reliance and blind trust that we have put in our personal cell phones. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had teachers or administrators tell me “Oh, if I need something I’ll just call the office or 911 from my cell phone.” There are a couple big problems here. First off, that’s assuming that you will have your cell phone in hand at the moment the child falls off the top of the slide, the roof of the gym starts peeling off, or the intruder bursts into your classroom. That cell phone (like your keys and your ID) will do you no good on your desk, in your bag, or charging by your computer.
The second issue is the naïve assumption that when you want to make a cell phone call, you’ll be able to. In most major crisis events, one of the first systems to be overwhelmed and inoperable is cell phone service. While your cell phone is an excellent tool, you need to be able to easily access and effectively use all available communication systems–high tech and low tech.
Stories abound of toddlers who call 911. Many people like to say that proves “even a child can do it.” Yes, but not effectively.
Do you really know how to call 911 from your classroom phone? Is it 9 for an outside line or some other random formula? Dispatchers need to talk with the people closest to the event who can provide specifics. An elaborate game of telephone that goes from the classroom PA to the office to the principal to 911 wastes valuable time and endangers lives.
Once on the line with the dispatcher, provide the most crucial information – what is happening (“CPR in progress”, not “difficulty breathing”) and where (“I’m in room 202 at the northwest corner of the A side of the building”, not “I’m in the 6th grade wing by Mr. Baker’s room at the end of Success hallway”).
None of the communication strategies we’ve discussed here require big budgets, new equipment, or board approval. They are simple, but powerful practices that you can implement in your school. Improving communication is a critical tool in the toolbox for keeping students safe every day.
Dr. Amy Klinger is a nationally recognized expert on school safety and crisis management. She is the co-founder and director of programs for the Educator’s School Safety Network, and the co-author of Keeping Students Safe, Everyday (ASCD, 2018) along with Amanda Klinger.